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Lockerbie bomber may be released within days

Decision on whether Abdelbasset Ali al Megrahi should be returned from a Scottish jail to his native Libya will be made within days.

LONDON // A decision on whether the man found guilty of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 should be returned from a Scottish jail to his native Libya will be made within days. Abdelbasset Ali al Megrahi is serving a minimum sentence of 27 years in Greenock Prison, near Glasgow. He was convicted in 2001 for planting the bomb in December 1988 that brought down the plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

Al Megrahi, 57, is suffering from terminal prostate cancer and, in May, Libya formally requested that he be allowed to return home to complete his sentence in a Libyan prison. Kenny MacAskill, Scotland's justice secretary, visited the bomber in prison yesterday and is expected to make a decision shortly on whether or not to allow al Megrahi to go home on compassionate grounds. "The Lockerbie bomber could be freed and flown home within days," reported yesterday's Scottish Daily Record. If MacAskill recommends Megrahi's release, he will be flown to Tripoli within a week, the Record understands from senior legal and diplomatic sources.

"There is now a growing feeling that Megrahi will be allowed his freedom." However, there is considerable opposition from relatives of those who died to al Megrahi's return to Libya, even though the bomber has a wife and five children there and is believed to have only months to live. In a letter to Mr MacAskill last month, Kathleen Flynn, an American mother whose son John died in the explosion, wrote: "We are shocked and horrified that the convicted bomber of this horrific crime is being considered for a prisoner-transfer agreement to Libya.

"I would hope that you would include the views of the majority of victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing - the 189 Americans lost on the flight." Frank Duggan, a Washington lawyer who is president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, took part in a video conference with Mr MacAskill recently and stressed the US families' belief that Megrahi should remain in Scotland. "He should stay in prison in Scotland. That was the agreement [between the US and UK governments]," Mr Duggan said.

"The position of the US government is that he should serve his sentence in Scotland and that was the overwhelming message [from the families] to Mr MacAskill." Other families in the UK, however, remain unconvinced over al Megrahi's guilt and feel that the real culprits behind the bombing have escaped justice. Jim Swire, a retired doctor who lost his daughter in the bombing, said: "Of course the Americans are saying that he is guilty. Their administration has told them that he is guilty. But I don't think they have questioned the quality of the evidence."

Alex Salmond, the Scottish government's first minister, will make the decision on whether to return al Megrahi in consultation with Mr MacAskill. Mr Salmond has previously acknowledged that there would be "deep unease" if he were allowed to leave Scotland. Al Megrahi is currently pursuing a second appeal against his conviction, but he would have to drop this case if his bid to go home is permitted because, under the UK-Libya agreement signed this year on prisoner returns, nobody can be repatriated while legal action is still active.

His lawyers have also been seeking his release on compassionate grounds because of his state of health. A similar bid was rejected by the appeal court last year after the judges were told he could live for several more years. But Margaret Scott, al Megrahi's barrister, said his health is deteriorating rapidly and he is experiencing a "relentless onset of symptoms". Christine Grahame, a member of the Scottish parliament who has met al Megrahi twice in recent months, said Scottish Prison Service officials have admitted they have no accommodation to manage him.

"This makes the case for compassionate release absolutely imperative. "That option is not subject to judicial review and is the only sensible compromise position in light of the fresh evidence and Mr Megrahi's deteriorating health." dsapsted@thenational.ae

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